Biden to nominate defense secretary, introduce health team to fight coronavirus

Reading Time: 4 minutes

President-elect Joe Biden will nominate retired Army General Lloyd Austin to be his defense secretary as soon as Tuesday, a person familiar with the decision said, and will publicly introduce the health team to lead his administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Austin, 67, a former head of US Central Command who oversaw forces in the Middle East under President Barack Obama, will be the first Black American secretary of defense if the US Senate confirms him.

He was a surprise pick over Michele Flournoy, a former top Defense Department official who was considered the leading contender and would have been the first woman defense secretary.

Biden, a Democrat, takes office on January 20 after defeating Republican President Donald Trump in the November 3 election. Trump has made unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud and is running out of options in his unprecedented attempts to overturn the vote in several states.

Tuesday is “safe harbor” day, a deadline set by a US law from 1887 for states to certify the results of the election. On December 14 Electoral College members meet to formally select the presidential nominee who won the popular vote in their home states.

Biden has promised the most diverse Cabinet in US history, and he made a point in his victory speech last month of telling Black voters he would remember them.

He has already named many of his national security and economic leaders, and his health team will guide the response to the pandemic that has killed more than 283 000 Americans and led to millions losing jobs.

Effective vaccines would help the Biden administration turn its focus to healing the ailing U.S. economy. There was more positive news on Tuesday in the form of US Food and Drug Administration documents showing that the regulator did not raise any new issues about Pfizer Inc’s vaccine safety or efficacy.

Austin, who retired in 2016, needs a waiver from Congress to become defense secretary because he has been out of the military less than the required seven years.

Known as a shrewd strategist with deep knowledge of the armed forces, he developed a working relationship with Biden during the Obama administration and has been advising the transition team on national security issues, the person familiar with the decision to name him said.

The nomination could draw fire from some progressive groups because Austin is on the board of a number of companies, including weapons maker Raytheon Technologies Corp.

But it will help answer complaints from advocacy groups about the need for more racial diversity in the Cabinet.

After Biden introduces the leadership of his new health team on Tuesday, he will have a virtual meeting with civil rights leaders who have been pressing him about the need for more Black officials in top administration posts.

The choice of Austin also will resonate among proponents for greater diversity in the leadership of the U.S. armed forces, which is regularly criticized for failing to promote Black service members and whose top tier has been largely white.

Biden will introduce California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, a Latino former congressman, for secretary of health and human services. Becerra has a long record of supporting the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare.

Biden chose Dr. Rochelle Walensky, chief of infectious diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, to run the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was named as Biden’s chief medical adviser on the virus.

Biden picked Jeff Zients, an economic adviser known for his managerial skills, as coronavirus “czar.” Zients will oversee the pandemic response, including the distribution of hundreds of millions of doses of vaccine in coordination with several federal agencies, among them the Pentagon.